Entertainment

Anne Bogart's picture

There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen)

I graduated from high school in Middletown, Rhode Island in June of 1969. Yes, that 1969 – the year of Woodstock. And yes, I attended the Woodstock Festival the following August. Not only was I at Woodstock for the entire three days of peace, love and music, but also I arrived there from Rhode Island in the predictable green and white VW van full of mostly longhaired fellow travelers. During that same summer Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, Charles Manson and his followers murdered five people and Ted Kennedy drove off of a bridge on his way home from a party on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts and Mary Jo Kopechne died in his submerged car. In 1969 Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was raging although no one really understood why we were there.

I discovered what was then the relatively new countercultural movement during the middle of my junior year at Middletown High School. I was definitely in the minority at school in my embrace of the hippie movement, which to me was an exciting expression of a general dissatisfaction with the cultural and political options that existed at the time. Music may be what initially drew me to the scene. The first counter-cultural recordings that I owned were Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, Cream’s Disraeli Gears and Country Joe and the Fish’s Electric Music for the Mind and Body. My boyfriend Steve Ceglarski and I switched smoked hashish while listening to these albums. Of course he grew his hair and I wore bellbottoms. As I moved into my senior year I began to spend time with the hippies who congregated daily at Trouro Park in Newport, Rhode Island and I waded deeper into the scene.

During the summer of 1969 I moved into what could be considered a commune in the town of Newport. My parents were far away and I used my newfound freedom to experiment with many other aspects of the counter culture. These immersive experiences led me to the suspicion that the world out there, the one that had seemed so solid and so structured, so full of things with distinct and tangible identities, was far more mysterious than I had previously understood. I felt as though I was Alice breaching the looking glass or falling into a hole in the trunk of a tree. One day I found myself walking on a beach near the town of Newport and in the midst of rather mind-altering visions about the instability and impermanence of everything, I realized that because I still have a body and a life ahead of me, it might be too soon to discover these dramatic realities.

I emphatically do not encourage artificial pathways towards altered states but nevertheless my own encounters were formative for me and they were also real. I began to discern the duality that is inherent to human experience and to entertain the possibility that somewhere within me there is something like an “I” but also to be open to the radical possibility that my self, at the deepest level, is not at all what I had always thought of it as being. Underlying my daily experience of what appears to be assemblages of solid objects and regulated time, lurk fundamental inconsistencies. I entertained the notion that things were not what they seem; that an underlying current infuses daily life with a glorious mystery. Perhaps, I wondered, we exist simultaneously in two worlds. I began to explore the potential state of in-between, to be present in the space between opposing truths.

Years later I found this notion of in-between articulated in science in the polarities between classical or Newtonian physics and quantum physics. In our daily lives we generally occupy what the physicists call a Newtonian classical world. But look closely enough and you will discover a quantum reality where there is only movement and change, nothing actually touches, nothing is permanent or solid and time is relative. And this quantum world can also affect our day-to-day Newtonian one in mysterious and unexpected ways. For example, we occupy what the quantum physicists describe as “an observer-created-reality.” Observing an entity changes it.  The ramifications for art and theater seem to me to be enormous. To my delight, I learned that acts of observation create agency and each viewing can be an act of remaking. I learned to appreciate that art is not simply an act of consuming; rather it remains alive and circulates dynamically through our acts of observation.

Perhaps I was and continue to be drawn to the experience of art because it allows, in fact, it demands me to occupy the space in-between. Art exists in the liminal space between events, between ideas and between and amidst the minutiae of the familiar Newtonian world. Art is not life; rather it embodies ideas about life expressed in various communicative forms such as literature, visual art, music and performance. 

Both as a creator and as an audience member, art asks me to entertain multiple probabilities or ideas simultaneously.

The notion of “entertaining an idea” can be instructive in grasping the possible connotations of the word entertainment. The ability for one person to entertain another, the collaboration between the storyteller and an audience, requires tools that have been developed over thousands of years, specifically for the purpose of capturing and sustaining an audience’s attention. Entertainment is the activity that holds the attention and interest of an audience and it is central to the experience of art. The development of the theater and storytelling is the history of refining methods of entertainment. Over the centuries, techniques have advanced in sophistication and efficiency.

To appreciate a work of art, both the creator and the audience need to be able to entertain multiple ideas simultaneously. To be effectively entertained, audiences must first of all know that what they are seeing or reading is fiction but simultaneously allow themselves to respond to it emotionally and empathically as if it were real. Perhaps the art experience proposes a form of purposeful cognitive dissonance. The benefits clearly make it worth the audience’s investment of time and attention. In the theater I hope to be ushered to a moment, or to a state, in which I am arrested in a state of in-between. Time seems to stop and I can “entertain” an altered state. What benefit do audiences derive from this investment and engagement? How does the artist maneuver this transaction?

The etymology of the word entertainment is instructive: Enter, from the Latin means “inside.” Tain is “to grasp, to hold, to possess, occupy or control.” Ment comes from mens, or “the mind.” The word suggests the mental state of entering, holding or grasping in between or inside. To be able to entertain an idea means that I have got to hold an idea, to maintain it in the mind, and simultaneously float it with other ideas. This interaction engenders engagement and this engagement, or encounter constitutes a real experience.

The word entertainment has long been associated with amusement and gratification but we can shift perspectives to find richer meanings uses for entertainment. What appears to be entertainment may also be an indirect means of achieving insight or intellectual growth. Rather than simply perceiving meaning, we construct meaning.  Perception and feeling contribute to the creation of meaning. Entertainment might provide the access to deeper parts of the human experience, beyond gratification and towards insight. Once “entertained,” or in “a mental state of in-between,” an audience may begin to consider philosophical or critical questions including, what is the meaning of life, how can we get along better, what does it mean to be human or what is the right thing to do? These questions can underpin as well as drive the narrative.

In modern Greek, the word λεωφορείο (pronounced leoforeío) means bus Note the root “foreío,” which is where we derive the words and concepts of metaphor and semaphore. Phore is a form that carries or bears something. A semaphore carries or bears meaning. A metaphor carries or transfers the sense or aspects of one thing into another. I like to think of a bus when contemplating the notion of metaphors and semaphores and also when I imagine creating a space where an audience can live “in between” and entertain opposition. Think of metaphor is a figurative bus that carries people, that we ride around in. It may carry us to insight. Entertainment is a bus that we construct for an audience to ride around in. Meaning as carried in a bus (as in semaphore) or one kind of object or idea used in place of another carried in a bus (as in metaphor).

In our current cultural, political and technological world we are increasingly thinking digitally. Things are black or they are white. In contrast, art interests itself in multiplicity, in the spaces in-between, the interstices, the liminal. In writing the story of my teenage hippie experiences, I attempted to create a bus for you, dear reader, to ride around in. Once I had you riding the bus, I considered some philosophical notions about entertainment. I hope that you enjoyed the ride.